I never had the black church experience. It’s one of those longings in my heart that has mostly gone unfulfilled in my life. Whenever I reached a crossroads in my life, a point where I would find myself needing (or having) to switch churches, circumstances kept leading me to multi-cultural ministries. Yes, it’s a bit of a struggle, purposefully placing myself in a situation where I’m the sole, or part of a handful of, blacks in a church. For example, Gospel music is the kind of music that speaks to my soul, the music I miss as a function of the ministries of which I tend to find myself a part (for now). Part of what I keep in mind is that I want our church to set an example of multi-cultural worship from the beginning, so it’s a sacrifice I willingly make.
However, I often feel like I’m missing something. Like I’m disconnected from … part of me.
Even now, when I visit black churches, I struggle with feelings ranging from I’m slumming (look at all the neat black folks getting their Jesus on) to I’m a sell-out for leaving/not being a part of the historic black church. With my recent blogs wrestling with how the church used the Bible to first justify and then vilify slavery, it struck me how amazing it was that the black church came into existence at all.
A poster on TheOoze message board made this interesting comment:
The history of the white church in relation to blacks is, well, sin-filled. At one time, African Americans were not even considered to have souls. Then it came to the time that whites said, “Sure, we are brothers in Christ. I love you in God; now get to the back of the bus!” Because of such history, many wonder if I am the same way. Will I say one thing and do another? Can I be trusted, or will I be just like the thousands of white Christians that came before me? Remember, the black church only began because whites didn’t want them in theirs.
Let me put it another way: one of the greatest miracles in the history of the church (after Jesus’ resurrection) is the emergence of the black church. That somehow Christianity took root within the context of slavery and took off. Despite people’s best efforts.
At the time, Christianity was used as a weapon, pure and simple. While some people may have legitimately wanted to evangelize the “heathens,” for the most part, Christianity was used as a means of control – used to strip away any trace of the native religion–from animism to Islam–black folks were forced to unlearn this aspect of their culture. There is a biblical story that can be used to illustrate this process. During the time of Exile, when the Israelites had been taken into captivity to Babylon, their best and brightest were re-educated. They had to adopt .the Babylonian culture, learn the Babylonian language, learn the Babylonian religion, and take on new (Babylonian) names. This is the context for the story of Daniel and the lion’s den, for example.
With American slavery, the African way of life and belief was over-ridden with a new doctrinal system, one twisted for the purpose of transformation and intended to be a spiritual opiate. Mixed in with the teachings about God–with the passages on the master-slave relationship emphasized–were fun facts like how black people were created less than a white man. How black people (via Ham) were cursed to be slaves. How black people ought to be thankful for them having been taken in by their benevolent masters.
However, don’t read your Bibles; and just to be safe, we won’t teach you how to read.
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Psalms 137:4
So I’m left wondering how it was possible for black people to retain their humanity amidst their bondage. Black survival can’t be taken for granted. I’m not even touching upon the dehumanization that was (and is) chattel slavery. Survival most times meant being subversive, which merged quite nicely with Christ’s mission since his message and method was always one of subversion. To struggle against the greater culture, the ruling majority–to throw off the shackles of the oppressors.
What we see are Africans worshiping in spite, and because, of their circumstances. The culture adopted the trappings of Christianity and in so doing, Christianity was able to speak to and within the culture. Of course, the captive Africans identified with the story of the Israelites, especially while enslaved in Egypt. And they awaited a Moses. They tied freedom to eschatology, as their hope was heaven. They went to church to experience a dose of defined humanity as church was the only time allowed for their assembly. Again, it was the church that not only united them, but was the only means “approved” for them to gather. Not a political movement, not another religion. So it was adapted by the people for their needs.
God can use the best intentions, failed methods, and even evil and unjust acts for the furtherance of His own ends. He did so with the crucifixion of Christ. He did so with slavery and the black church. Africans took the “remains” of their religions and melded them with their interpretations of the Bible. The church, their gatherings, became the “Invisible Institutions” away from the watchful slave owners. Part mission, part faith community, the church became the institutional heart of the people. Christianity, in this respect, united Africans from different tribes, cultures, and religions, and provided a basis for unity. Their common struggle helped them organize and would lead to liberation, both spiritual and social.
Hope is what sustains us during dark times. I was asked recently why should I hope. There’s hope because Christ gave us a simple mission: to join Him in being a blessing to others. Reality says that not everyone will buy into that mission, even those who profess to believe in Christ, but I have hope that it’s a right and true mission. Our hope isn’t a “wait until we get to heaven and it will all work out” hope. It’s a “the kingdom begins now” hope. It’s the hope that says in light of Christ reconciling us to God, an act of supreme love, we are to love others. It’s the hope that says just as He reached out to the forgotten, those “outside” the establishment (religious or civil), we are to care for the “least of these”, widows, orphans, the poor. It’s the hope that says He may not be here to hold us or sit with someone when they go through a dark time (although part of our hope is that one day He will), but He sent the church to be His living arms, His living tears, and His living laughter (and the Holy Spirit to help us all).
That’s my hope.
Maybe there are things that can be learned from the African brand of Ancient-Future faith.